France is the oldest country of immigration in Europe. In the 19the century, while the English, the Irish, the Germans, the Scandinavians and the Italians left the continent en masse to populate the New World, France welcomed hundreds of thousands of Belgians, Germans, Italians and Spaniards. “With the decline in fertility that began in 1750 and aggravated by the wars of the Revolution and the Empire, France lacked the manpower to industrialize in the second half of the 19th century.e century “observes the demographer François Héran, professor at the Collège de France, in Let’s talk about immigration in 30 questions (French Documentation, 2012).
To Belgians (nearly 500,000 in 1886) and Italians at the end of the 19the century, there were also Poles (500,000 in 1931), Spaniards, Russians and Armenians in the interwar period. After the war, to build the economic prosperity of the “glorious thirty”, France welcomed Spaniards and Algerians then, in the 1960s, Portuguese, Moroccans and Turks. From the end of the XXe century, immigration gradually became global: sub-Saharan Africans (922,000 in 2019), Asians (486,000 in 2019) and Latin Americans then joined the country.
If we stick to their magnitude, the waves of immigration that affected France in the 20e century are « comparables » to those recorded in the United States, estimates Gérard Noiriel in French Le Creuset (The Threshold, 1988). In 1930, France had the highest rate of foreigners in the world and some forty years later, in 1975, the proportion of residents born abroad rose to more than 12% in France, against less than 5% on the other side of the Atlantic. “Over three generations, the impact of immigration is at least as important in France as in the United States”concludes the historian.
A bond over three generations
This long history has made France a “multicultural society”analyze researchers Patrick Simon, Cris Beauchemin and Christelle Hamel in Trajectories and origins. Survey on the diversity of populations in France (INED, 2016 edition). According to the second wave of this survey conducted by INSEE and INED (226,500 people in 2019-2020), a third of those under 60 have a link with immigration over three generations: 9% are immigrants, 13% of descendants of second generation immigrants and 10% of descendants of third generation immigrants.
During a symposium on the plurality of cultures organized in 1987 at the Sorbonne, President François Mitterrand had evoked this singular diversity with a smile. “We are French – “our ancestors the Gauls” – a little Roman, a little German, a little Jewish, a little Italian, a little Spanish, more and more Portuguese, maybe who knows Polish – and I wonder if, already, we are not a little Arab…”he had launched. “The parents of Zola and Gambetta were considered troublemakers who wanted to take the place of French traders, he added. It would have been a shame to send them back…”